Reshaping South Asian Geopolitics

Necessity could restart Delhi-Islamabad dialogue

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh 

This is the second of two articles today dealing with geopolitical change in Asia. The other is “The Passing of Pax Americana” by Malaysian academic B A Hamzah.

The spread of Covid-19 is producing changes in economic and political landscapes, with less-developed countries like Pakistan and India facing an acute shortage of health infrastructure that could drive them out of alienation into an embrace of necessity. 

The South Asian region has seen the resuscitation of almost-dead regional arrangements like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The timing for revival couldn’t be better. On March 15, in an otherwise highly unexpected move, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated a first-ever video-link conference of the eight-member association, which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.   

Although Modi has largely ignored the association since 2016 when he pushed for the cancellation of a summit in Pakistan, the need for a “common strategy” to counteract Covid-19, the 21st century’s first global pandemic, drove him to it.  

Although Pakistan's initial reaction was to pour cold water on Modi’s idea, bashing India’s annexation of Kashmir, Pakistan has an equally desperate need for coordination and cooperation. Modi’s call for a joint strategy came against the backdrop of India’s own poor health infrastructure and one of the lowest levels of GDP spending on health in the world. 

India’s budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year, presented and passed by the Parliament at a time when the virus had already gripped China, allocated just US$9.7 billion for health against a whopping US$66 billion for defense spending. As against a large standing military force, India has a ratio of only a single state-run hospital for every 55,591 people, and a single hospital bed for every 1,844 people. It would require at least 500,000 more doctors to meet the World Health Organization’s recommended doctor-to-population ratio.

Pakistan is no exception and, as with India, the disparity between its military and health services spending remains huge. While maintaining a large standing Army and advanced nuclear weapons system, there are only 2,000 ventilators for a population of over 200 million. While the WHO recommends five hospital beds per 1,000 population, Pakistan’s hospital bed-to-population ratio is less than one. What compounds the problem is the fact the bed occupancy rate is almost always over 100 percent. 

And the PTI coalition government headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, which won the 2018 election on a populist agenda of curbing corruption and bringing development, has not established a single new hospital. Accordingly, the government is already turning convention centers and empty housing colonies into ‘isolation centers’ for an infected population that is expected to skyrocket from its current 972, with two deaths, given the lack of adequate health care. 

Whereas SAARC remains hostage to India-Pakistan rivalry over Kashmir and direct and indirect interference in Kashmir and Baluchistan by both countries, the magnitude of the crisis plus the acute shortage of the capacity to tackle it should ideally push these countries towards a less militarized and a more development-oriented policy approach. An attempt to revive SAARC, even though it was apparently Modi’s stunt to establish India as the regional leader in the fight against the virus, still shows that militarism in the region needs to end in the face of the growing threat to humanity from such invisible enemies. 

A silver lining in all this is the fact that all SAARC countries responded positively to the call for a conference. But distrust remains. 

Pakistan’s response is telling. The fact that the PTI government decided to send a ‘health adviser’ to the conference not only shows Pakistan’s lack of faith in SAARC and Modi-led India, but also that Pakistan was there to test the waters, knowing fully that Modi’s push for a conference has its roots in tactics aimed at diverting attention from India’s poor health infrastructure, the long-running Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) related riots and India’s descent into religious and communal extremism. 

Yet cooperation can be vital. South Asia has more than a fifth of the world’s population, making it one of the most densely populated regions in the world and the biggest risk of the spread from currently-affected countries on their borders including China and Myanmar, deep into their populations. 

South Asia remains one of the least integrated regions in the world. Whereas ‘regional integration’ may not be an ideal and a suitable solution to fight COVID-19 at this stage, there is no gainsaying that the crisis has led many in the region (and the whole world) to emphasize implementing a shift from militarism to welfare state, from developing weapons systems to building hospitals and other health services infrastructures.

While it may be too early to say that SAARC could actually revamp and integrate the region, an internal shift in these countries, particularly in India and Pakistan, away from excessive spending on militarism might help redefine bi-lateral and multi-lateral relations and platforms respectively. It has already led these countries to divert massive resources to building ad hoc hospitals. Giving it a sort of permanence would have implications beyond domestic policies.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel